Obama and Afghanistan
Paris, July 24, 2008 – I have yet to see a serious explanation of what Barack Obama, if elected, expects to accomplish by expanding the fighting in Afghanistan. Obviously he, like the Bush administration and NATO, would like to keep the Taliban from coming back to Afghanistan. They all want to capture Osama bin-Laden (presuming he is still alive, about which there is some doubt).
Afghanistan is a huge country which has always suffered from ethic-based warlords. The Taliban belong to the biggest ethnic group in the country, the Pathans – 40% of the population, with millions more of them in adjoining Pakistan.
The broadcaster and commentator Gwynne Dyer suggests, in an article in Arab News (in Jeddah), that Barack Obama's promise to reinforce American troops in Afghanistan, and to attack Pakistan's frontier territories if the Pakistan authorities won't control its radical tribesmen (which they never have been able to do, and for the most part, wisely, do not attempt to do), is a political smokescreen covering his intended withdrawal from Iraq. He can't be accused of weakness on Iraq and Iran if he is enlarging the war in Afghanistan and attacking Pakistan.
Possibly. I am more inclined to think, with regret, that Obama has swallowed Washington's Kool Aid on Afghanistan and Pakistan: that Force is the only thing Natives understand. This would seem surprising, given that he saw the trap in Iraq from the start, and knows what happened to the U.S. in Viet Nam. But he certainly sounds as if he thinks he has located the answer to the war on terror.
At least in Vietnam one fought the actual enemy. In Pakistan-Afghanistan one is playing billiards. The U.S. threatens the Pakistanis; that is expected to make them do bad things to the Taliban; so that the Taliban then hand over Osama bin Ladin.
Al Qaeda is mainly Saudi Arabian and Arab. The Taliban are not terrorists; they have never attacked the United States or European NATO. They just want their country back. They were running Afghanistan when the Americans came in 2001.
They are not people you and I want to govern us. They oppress women, ban higher education, and apply Sharia law. But that surely is the Afghan people's problem. They let the Taliban take over their country in 1996, and perhaps they are ready to do so again. What has this to do with NATO?
As for al Qaeda and the terrorists, even if the Taliban won't turn them in to the U.S., and the Pakistan army can't or won't catch them, it would seem madness for NATO to attack or invade the Tribal Territories. Western armies throughout history have fared badly in the Pakistan-Afghanistan badlands.
Anyway, Osama bin Laden and his men have a lot of other places where they can go. They have only to pack their bags and vanish. They can expect a lot of help. They don't have to let themselves get pinned down in Waziristan.
Invading other countries to nation-build seems the new American idea. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has a long article in Foreign Affairs explaining that "we will be involved in nation building for years to come."
According to her article, American military and civilian agencies are being re-trained to carry out a "generational" task of "stabilization and counterinsurgency missions" to achieve "democratic state building" in Asia and the Middle East. Is this what Barack Obama contemplates?
American policy until recently has been to attack, not rebuild, states where Muslim radicals are active. This usually forces the radicals underground, leaving the civilian population battered by collateral damage from American rockets and air strikes, grieving for their dead, and hating America and the West. This has seemed to have been thought the regrettable but essential preliminary to democratic nation-building.
Remember Somalia in 1993? The U.S. was part of a UN mission in a country ravaged by tribal militias. The Italian officers in command – knowing something of the country, an ex-Italian colony – counseled appeasement, accommodation, and negotiations with tribal warlords. U.S. officers decided it would be better to take out the bad guys. The result was two U.S. helicopters downed, and 18 Americans killed with some of the bodies mutilated. The U.S. pulled out of Somalia.
In 2006, in the still-continuing power struggle, an Islamist group emerged in Somalia, defeated the warlords, took control of the country, and gave it peace for the first time in years.
The U.S. accused the new leaders of being al-Qaeda-linked, and paid Somalia's old enemy, Ethiopia, to invade the country, providing U.S. airstrikes in support. The Islamists were forced out, and a "transitional government" was installed by the Ethiopians. U.S. helicopters continued to hunt "terrorist suspects" across the country, which again fell into civil struggle. Thousands more have been killed since, and millions displaced.
Since January, international aid workers have begun being murdered, apparently out of hatred for westerners. The UN expects famine in the country by autumn. Nation-building will have to wait until later.
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